Transition by Iain Banks (Books 2019, 25)

This post was written in the new year, but read in the old, and accordingly backdated.

This is a strong as it was ten years ago when I first read it, but still has the same narrative flaw. That’s not surprising, but the flaw in the universe-hopping detail is so jarring that I read it half-hoping to pick up on something that I had missed the last time.

It was not to be. Our heroes and villains still hop to uninhabited Earths, and yet find a body there to receive them.

And of course, the ethical question of possessing another human being remains barely addressed.

All that said, though, it’s still a great read.

Jerusalem by Alan Moore (Books 2017, 5)

Yes, it’s halfway through the second-last month of the year and I’ve just finished my fifth book. Five in a year. That’s very poor. But this book was a large part of the reason for that.1

At over 1000 pages of very small text — close to a million words, I’ve heard — this is a mammoth work. It’s also really, really good.

As befits such a large work, it is a whole made of many parts. It’s split into three main sections, with each of those having eleven chapters; along with a “Prelude” and an “Afterlude.” The first is a series of short stories or vignettes, most of which are not obviously connected. They are all set in and around an area of Northampton called the Boroughs, at various times in the past and present.

In the second we find out what happened to Mick Warren, the closest thing we have to a protagonist, after he died aged three, before he came back to life again. The third brings it all together, after a fashion. Moore has always had trouble with endings — just consider the mighty Watchmen, whose ending was actually improved by the movie.

Did Alma Warren’s pictures save everything, and stop the destructor? Of course not: it always happened that way and always will. That’s the central thesis of the novel, the idea of eternalism, that time is static, and we only experience change because we happen to be moving along that axis at one second per second. This is of course similar to the viewpoint of Dr Manhattan in the aforementioned Watchmen, so we could suppose it’s a worldview that Moore has had for some time, though in his acknowledgements he suggests that he came to believe it during the years he was writing Jerusalem.

There is a chapter in book three that is written in the style of Joyce in his Finnegan’s wake days. It’s hard work to get through, but well worth it (though with hindsight if you were to skip that chapter I don’t think you’d miss much of the plot). Anyway, it’s a monster work, and well worth the time it takes to read.

  1. To be fair, spending a lot of time reading on the web, plus some reading comics, etc: these also need to be considered. []

Punk and Hugo

I hadn’t come across Garageland London before, though I approve of the name.1 They came across my radar the other day with a piece called Cease and Desist: An open letter to Brewdog from PUNK, which says:

It has recently been brought to our attention that you are claiming legal ownership of the word ‘punk’ and are sending threatening legal notices to those you feel are infringing on that ownership by using that word.

I hadn’t heard this about Brewdog. If it’s true, they’re being beyond ridiculous (or possibly winding people up). I’ve got a lot of time for a Scottish company making craft beer, even if it’s only OK (and too damn strong most of the time: I like a beer you can drink a few of without falling over). But like the Garageland people, I thought their “Equity for Punks investment portfolio did raise some eyebrows.”

The open letter ends:

Definitions of punk are varied and debates over those definitions have been going on since before you were born. However, one thing punk is not is a bully! That goes against everything punk stands for. If you continue in this vein your punk credentials will be revoked and you will be called upon to cease and desist.

Kind regards and a middle finger salute

and is then signed by hundreds of bands. So many that I can’t really believe the website got agreement from all of them. But I heartily endorse the message.

In other good news, the Hugo Awards nominations were announced, and it looks like a great list, and also like the Puppies have been almost totally wiped out this year. Yay fandom!

I also note that one of the novel nominees is the very Too Like the Lightning that I was writing about the other day. Hugo nominated, and you still can’t buy it in Britain. Come on publishers!

Also: WordPress tells me that this is my 600th post on here. Not that many for the time the site’s been going for, but a milestone — or at least a round number — nonetheless.

  1. It’s named after a Clash song, as if you didn’t know. []

Homophobia in SF Fandom

As well as being in charge of the website of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), I also admin the association’s Facebook group. Yesterday a member posted a link to the BBC story about the sexuality of the new companion in Doctor Who. “Doctor Who gets first openly gay companion,” it says. Nice to know, but no big deal in 2017, right?

Wrong, sadly. I woke to 81 comments on the FB post. That’s a huge number by the normal standards of the group. It’s not very chatty. It turned out that a raving homophobe had stormed into the group and started to shout about the corruption of youth and I don’t know what all. The comments were a combination of his, and of calmer and more tolerant heads both calling him out and trying to debate rationally with him. To no avail.

I had no choice — nor any desire — but to kick him out the group and block him. I wrote the following, and I thought I should preserve it here;

I’ve just had to eject a member from the group for making offensive remarks to other members. And worse, making remarks offensive to other members.

Specifically he was being offensive to all our LGBT members, and everyone who supports them, or who just supports humanity and common decency.
Oh, wait, that’s all the other members, isn’t it?

Folks, I don’t need to tell you this, but it’s 2017. You can no longer argue that characters in popular TV programmes should not reflect the whole range of people in society. Nor can you make the argument that a character’s sexuality should have no place in Doctor Who, when it plainly has had a place at least since 2005.

Or don’t these people remember Rose being in love with The Doctor? Martha pining over him? Hell, go back further: Jo went off and married a male ecologist. And I’m sure at least a couple of other female companions went off with guys.

Flaunting their heterosexuality.

We won’t get any of that with Bill, at least.

Unless the next Doctor is a woman.

Again, Again

A long time ago — a long, long time ago: I can’t have been more than thirteen, maybe younger — I got an accidental book.

It was in John Smith’s in Glasgow: St Vincent Street’s glory. I thought it was now long gone, but apparently not. I was there, probably with my Mum — no, undoubtedly, as I didn’t go to Glasgow on my own till I was about sixteen — I’m guessing in about January, to spend Christmas money (often given in the form of Book Tokens in those days, of course).

I bought a stack of books. I don’t now recall what any of them were, but they were almost certainly mostly or entirely SF.

As was the freebie that I got by accident. If memory serves I paid at the checkout and gathered up my books, or more likely the assistant put them in a bag for me, and then when I got on to the train back to Balloch, I took them out to have a look.

And found I had more than I’d bargained for. Worse, more than I’d paid for. There was an extra book in my bag. One that I had never seen before, that I hadn’t chosen. One with an interesting title.

Again, Dangerous Visions, Book 2, edited by Harlan Ellison.

My immediate feeling was guilt. I had, effectively, stolen a book. I was a good Catholic boy, and would never have stolen anything.

Then surprise: how had it got there? Presumably the assistant had mixed it up with the purchases of the person before me. There was probably someone sitting on a train right at that moment, realising that one of their books was missing. Poor them.

Poor them, but lucky me. I don’t think I told my Mum it had happened. Or if I did, she must have said not to worry, it was too late to do anything; and that doesn’t sound like her. One way or another, we made no attempt to return it.

But I think among the confusion and excitement of it all, I must have been slightly annoyed that it was the second volume: not much use without that first. And that “Again”: did that mean that the whole thing was some kind of follow-on?

Obviously I know now that it did. When I went to university a few years later and met a community of fans, when they mentioned the famous Dangerous Visions (non-) trilogy, I had some idea of what they were talking about.

I’d like to say that it was some kind of formative experience. That reading those legendary short stories changed my approach to the genre, or my understanding of fiction, or what have you. But I can’t really say that it did.

I eventually read the stories. Not having the earlier volumes of an anthology doesn’t cause any problem. Though I think I took the original, Dangerous Visions out of the library. Some of them were great, but I don’t recall finding any of them particularly memorable (though you never know: some things burrow deep). But one of the titles stuck with me, and is why I started writing this today.

That was “A Mouse in the Walls of the Global Village,” by Dean Koontz. Though I couldn’t have told you who it was by, and I’m quite surprised to find that it’s Koontz, who I think of as a horror author.

It came to mind because of something my beloved was saying about this interview between George Osborne and Yuval Noah Harari. She mentioned the “global village” idea, and my mind jumped back to the story and the cascade of memories that go with that book. I downloaded the Kindle version of the book (and the first one) and started writing this.

As I recall, that global village involved telepathy, and is very much not the one we are living in. But that doesn’t matter. It’s time to reacquaint myself with some old New Wave SF.

The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (Books 2016, 6)

I enjoyed it, but I didn’t really understand it.

I’m sure I should have more to say about it than that, but really, that sums it up quite neatly.

But to try to go a bit deeper… The solar system is populated by various species or clans of posthumans, transhumans, AIs, uploaded minds, whatever. Earth is unrecognisable, though some people — seemingly fairly close to basic-human, though it’s hard to judge, with so many strangenesses — still live there.

In some ways the biggest problems with this book, and its predecessor The Quantum Thief, which I read a few years ago, is the sheer number of new or repurposed words. None of these is ever explained: you have to gain an understanding of them from context, working it out as you go along. This is a perfectly fine and valid method of storytelling, but here it all just gets a bit too much.

Maybe it’s my fault for the way I read the book: in disjointed fragments and sections, over weeks. Perhaps if I had read it in a more concentrated fashion, its meanings would have unwrapped themselves for me more easily, more thoroughly.

But at the same time, it’s the storyteller’s job to tell their story in a way that allows the reader to grasp it, to understand it. If he reader has difficulty with that, then it’s not the reader’s fault. It’s the storyteller’s.

And yet, and yet, I enjoyed it, I finished it, I think i’l probably read the third in the trilogy, which I believe is a thing. Eventually, after some time has passed on this one,

And I’ll probably have just as much trouble with that one when the time comes.

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (Books 2016, 4)

A rereading, this, but I remembered much less of it than I thought, and enjoyed it even more than I expected to.

All I really remembered in any detail was the dog-like pack-based beings, the Tines. Maybe a vague sense of the rogue superintelligent AI that caused all the problems.

And the “Zones of Thought” themselves, of course. A genius idea, which, in brief summary, is this: the further out from the galactic core you get, the more advanced the technology that is possible. Implicitly that includes biology. It’s never explicitly stated, but it seems likely that deep inside the galaxy, in the “Unthinking Depths,” intelligence is not possible. Further out you get the “Slow Zone”, which is where Earth is.1 Only sub-lightspeed travel is possible here, and machines cannot become intelligent.

But all this changes when you get to the galactic fringes, or the “Beyond,” where FTL and something close to AI are commonplace. And the further up the Beyond you go, the more this is true, until you reach the “Transcend,” where godlike AIs exist.

My memory was that the sections with the Tines were kind of annoying, with a sense of, “I want my space operas to be set in space, with high tech; not on a mediaeval-level world with nothing more advanced than cartwheels.”2 But of course the story of the kids stranded on the Tines’ World are both fundamental to the overall story, and at least as good as the galaxy-spanning main plot.

This book has gone from new, Hugo- & Nebula-Award winner to SF Masterwork in what feels like a very short time. It was first published in 1991, which is 25 years ago. I suppose that’s enough time to become a classic.3 The accolades are thoroughly deserved, of course.

The SF Masterworks edition has an introduction by Ken McLeod, which is well worth reading, and the whole is highly recommended by me.

  1. Or possibly, was: Earth doesn’t feature in this story. []
  2. I lost interest in Stephen Baxter’s Origin: Manifold Three largely because of the scenes on the stone-age planet. I see from GoodReads that a lot of other people had trouble with it too. []
  3. Arguably it was instantly a classic, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. []

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K Dick (Books 2016, 2)

Nothing to do with stigmata, really, and the titular differences aren’t even mentioned until three-quarters of the way through the book. It’s almost as if Dick wanted to use the title, and then realised, “Oh, I haven’t said what these stigmata are yet, or why. Better throw them in.” Because they are also entirely irrelevant to the story.

Oh yes, the story. Hmm. It’s not one of Dick’s best, and a lot of it barely makes sense. Or at least, it makes sense in that it’s internally consistent. But it’s hard to believe. The UN conscripts people using a military-style draft, to go and live on the colonies — Mars is the only one we see, but several other planets and moons within the solar system are implied.

Colonists’ lives are so hard and unpleasant that the only way they can get by — and the only entertainment they have, it seems — is to lose themselves in shared hallucinations induced by a drug called Can-D, during which they enter the world of characters called Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt. These are inspired or induced using “layouts” — groupings of miniaturised artefacts that become part of Pat’s life, and hence of the colonists’ hallucinations.

In any group entering the shared experience, all the women always take the part of Pat, and all the men that of Walt. Which seems very limiting and heteronormative.

And, oh, yes, the sexual politics.

In some ways they’re not too bad. The main character, Barney Mayerson, is a precog — oh yes, we have those, too, except when we forget that we do — and his assistant, Roni Fugate, ends up with his job, which is a quite a senior one at the company that makes “mins” — miniaturised items for use with the Perky Pat layouts. They use their precognitive powers to know what items are going to be fashionable. Other than that, the existence of reliable precognition seems to have had no impact on society.

Maybe that’s why he wrote “Minority Report.”

Anyway, at the start, she is also his lover, which seems to have happened as soon as she started working with him, almost as a given.

On the other hand, a significant part of the plot is driven by the fact that he has never got over his breakup with his wife — which I think might have been as long as twenty years ago — whom he dumped because she was bad for his career, or something.

In fact she’s a highly skilled potter, who makes artefacts that are miniaturised for use in these famous layouts. Mayerson rejects her latest designs, saying they won’t be successful, when Roni says they will. His attempt to screw up his ex’s career leads her (and her new husband, who is acting as her salesman) into the arms of a rival corporation.

That body has been set up by the mysterious titular character. Palmer Eldritch has just returned from a ten-year trip to the Proxima system, whence he might have bought back a new drug, Chew-Z, that has similar properties to Can-D but is even more powerful.

Also global warming: the world is unliveably hot, so everyone stays in air-conditioned buildings (and makes things worse). In America, at least. We don’t hear anything about the rest of the world. And forced “evolution”: some people go for expensive treatments in Swiss clinics, which give them bigger brains and leathery skin, at least on their head. Though sometimes it goes wrong and their intelligence decreases.

It’s all quite, quite mad, and the conclusion probably makes even less sense. But what the hell, it’s fun enough while it lasts.

Sleep and No Raven?

Well, as far as we can tell, this one isn’t part one of a two parter. So I guess I should write about it on its own.

I enjoyed it immensely — well, quite a lot — but I just wish sometimes they would take the trouble to come up with good, rational explanations for the events. Relatively simple steps, only needing a few extra words — or different words — in the script, could make these episodes be so much better.

The critical example of a story like this from last season is “[Kill the Moon](”. As I wrote at that link, they could relatively easily have included a few words that would have made the idea less preposterous. It wouldn’t necessarily be good science, but it would at least be less-ridiculous science than the explanation that was actually given.

So too here, then, with “Sleep No More.” The atmosphere and style of the episode were great. And the plot was fine. It was just the execution of the plot, including in particular the explanation for the problem, that let it down.

Let me explain what I mean. The plot, in summary, was: In found footage a mad scientist tells us the story of some soldiers investigating a space station that has dropped out of communication. The crew have been turned into dust-zombies by a machine that enables them to function on five minutes sleep a day. The explanation for the dust conversion is stupid.

The Doctor and Clara, of course, have arrived on the station and help to investigate. Clara gets sucked into the sleep machine, which means she will become a dust monster too.

Our heroes and the surviving troops escape in the TARDIS, and the mad scientist reveals he is a dust monster and is spreading the infection via the very recording we’re watching.

As I write that I realise that the whole Clara/infection thing wasn’t resolved, and nor, of course, was the infection via radio business (it reminded me slightly of Snow Crash, incidentally). So maybe they will revisit it, next week or later.

But the ostensible explanation — before we got the radio part from the mad scientist — was that somehow the sleep-compression machine caused the sleep in the corner of your eyes to — what, grow sentient and consume humans, generating more of itself in the process? It’s hard even to explain what they were getting at.

Yet all they had to do was to say it was an alien intelligence that hade got into the mad scientist’s head and convinced him that helping it to spread was the right thing. then even have the sleep-machines infecting people via nanotechnology.

The aliens could even be cousin-species of the [Vashta Nerada](, as there’s a certain similarity.

Of course, that way we’d lose the radio-transmission-based spread, which was a nice touch too. So maybe nanotech that is quiescent until activated by the code sent in the transmssion.

Either way, it doesn’t take a lot of thought to come up with an idea that doesn’t break the story, but which _also_ doesn’t jerk the viewer out of their suspension of disbelief.

And don’t get me started on the Star Trek-style powered orbit.

In my family we have concluded that what the show needs is, like UNIT, a Scientific Advisor.

Lake and Flood

Well, I’m not quite sure that Toby Whithouse quite managed to make the second episode as good as the first, but I’m loving the new series of Doctor Who.

The Beethoven bit at the start was unnecessary: a rare example of the modern show not expecting the viewer to keep up, but assuming they’ll need an explanation — a pre-explanation in this case, but still. (Also breaking the fourth wall; most unusual.)

On the other hand, maybe some people would have been a bit lost at the end without it. Maybe all of us would have missed the point and weeks later we’d have gone “Wait, but he only did that because he –” Which has its own pleasure too, of course.

My main concern was that The Doctor let O’Donnell die, without any apparent remorse. I have a feeling that might come back to haunt him.

Also: loving the two-parters. Proper cliffhangers and all. How about a traditional four-parter next season?